The Navy as they say is a world of its own. And this doesn’t just refer to a ship at sea which is virtually a floating city; everything that one does or utters, though second nature to a man in whites, is a source of great perplexity and amazement for others. Every questioning glance is parried by the stock reply ‘Tradition’, wherein lies the key to unraveling the great mysteries of the sea. Despite what Hartley said about the past being another country, the Navy forms a bridge where the past and the present intermingle seamlessly and everything done in the idiosyncratic present reflects the glory of a bygone era.
When you approach a naval vessel, you notice that it still retains a masthead and yardarms, since despite the technological advances in communications, hoisting flags to pass tactical information is still very much an ‘in’ thing. Warships also retain huge projectors on the bridge wings to exchange messages through flashing using Morse code. The ship’s bell is another anachronism; it proves its worth though by giving periodic reminders of time slipping by, alerting the ship’s crew to an emergency, warning ships in dense fog and for ringing in the new year.
When you board a ship, you do so on a ‘brow’. When you enter , there are no rooms, only ‘compartments’; these compartments are not enclosed by walls but by ‘bulkheads’, which can be ‘transverse’ or ‘longitudinal’. There are no bathrooms, only ‘heads’ (so called because they used to be located way forward). Everywhere you go, you see figure and colour coded markings to indicate everything from decks, compartments and bulkheads to watertight and gastight states; just ignore them though the crew itself can ill-afford to do so. You won’t find an officer’s mess, only the’ wardroom’, whose origins were humble: stemming from a wardrobe under the Captain’s cabin for stowing articles of value or for officers to hang their spare uniforms, to a gradual expansion into a full-fledged officer’s mess. The sailor’s mess likewise, till a century ago was no more than a table (hence the name, from the Spanish ‘mesa’) and even the benches came much later.
Naval terminology is likewise unique in character. Here, you don’t retire from sea service, you ‘swallow the anchor’, signifying thereby that it is of no further use; you don’t simply get lost, you are ‘adrift’; you don’t go downstairs, you go ‘below’; you don’t yell for help, you say ‘Mayday’ (from the French ‘m’aidez, which means the same thing though); you don’t acknowledge an order with a simple yes, you say “Aye,Aye sir’; officers don’t get posted, they are ‘appointed’; they don’t just get repeatedly get passed over(for promotion), they get’ pregnant’. On completion of its service life, a naval ship is not ‘disposed off’, it is ‘paid off’: a throwback to an era when men were only signed on for a specific ship service, and the part of the pay which was held back as a guarantee against desertion, was paid off to these men at the end of a ship’s commission.
One aspect which seafarers are most punctilious about is the paying of marks of respect. Apart from hand salutes, warships crossing each other exchange honours by piping the ’Still’ followed by the ‘Carry on’ and merchantmen acknowledge a warship by lowering its ‘colours’ to half-mast. All salutes were originally meant to indicate one’s peaceful intentions by signaling a distinct disadvantage: lowering topsails’, firing guns(at a time when reloading was a time-consuming affair) and a show of weapon-free hands. The hand salute is believed to have originated with the removal of the steel helmet, then progressed to holding the brim between the thumb and index finger and subsequently to the raising of the cap. The naval saluting tradition of keeping one’s palms inward has supposedly to do with hiding the grease and tar stains on working hands. However surprising it now sounds, officers in those days were actually permitted to use their left hands for salutes if their right was otherwise engaged. Another thing seafarers are particular about is their look; everything has to be ‘ship-shape’. There should be no loose ends, whether aboard a ship or on one’s person; these are referred to as ‘Irish Pennants’ from the Royal Navy’s imperious habit of naming everything deemed inappropriate after those they weren’t too fond of.
Naval etiquettes happen to be interlinked with an overt display of respect for seniors. A junior ship is not expected to cross the bows of a senior ship in keeping with the tradition established by a Royal Decree that ‘no captain shall take the wind of his admiral’, meaning thereby that the admiral should not be inconvenienced in any way. Even while walking past a senior officer, it is customary to do so with a ‘By your leave, sir’. Some senior officers tend to take this concept a bit too far by insisting that a senior officer’s staff car should not be overtaken either or permission be sought prior doing so. In the chaotic traffic situation of today, one can visualize this problematic scenario: bumper to bumper traffic, cars trapped in lanes, the senior car deliberately driving slow so as not to reach ahead of time, the junior car rushing headlong to get to the same venue before time, restriction on use of mobile phones while driving and the acute possibility of the senior officer’s number not being on the junior’s contact list, let alone identification issues.
Naval ranks likewise have a significance of their own. Under the admiral-in-chief or later admiral of the fleet, the admiral next in seniority or ‘vice’ (in place of) commanded the protective squadron at the head, the ‘vanguard’, while the admiral of the rear commanded the ‘rearguard’ squadron. The ‘master’ traditionally commanded a ship but became known as the ‘captain’ when the separate duties of a captain commanding the soldiers got combined. Midshipman was a midway rank between the officers and the men and the name stuck as they also lived ‘amidships’ between the officers(aft) and the men(forward).
The Supply Officer of today used to be called a ‘purser’ (from bursar, a treasurer) and the mutation could presumably have occurred as he held the purse strings. Since the purser looked after all the pay and provisioning aspects, it can well be imagined that it used to be an highly coveted appointment. Despite the fact that the pursers received no pay but had to instead pay a lot of money themselves for buying a warrant and depositing sureties, there was still no dearth of applicants scrambling over each other to land the plum job. When corrupted to ‘pusser’, it came to mean a stickler for regulations and ‘pusser issue’ pertained to anything of official origin.
I have deliberately kept the scariest part for the last. In the words of Dr Johnson: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned……….A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company”. Men had literally to be ‘shanghied’ and ‘press-ganged’ into service, and once recruited were kept in their place through recourse to punishments like ‘walking the plank’, ‘running the gauntlet’, ‘flogging around the fleet’, ‘birching on the bare breech’ and a special one for cooks who spoiled a meal, to be beaten with stockings full of sand( ‘cobbed and firked’). And believe me, a ‘taste of the captain’s daughter’ was not something one looked forward to with keen anticipation: this tasty delicacy was a lashing administered with a ‘cat o’ nine tails’, a whip with nine plaited thongs, and so called because the cat sprang into action under the captain’s authority.
Life at sea had its moments of respite though. After a particularly grueling emergency repair job, that of ‘splicing the main brace’, the feat was celebrated with the issuance of an extra ration of rum. The men were also occasionally given an afternoon off to ‘make and mend’ their uniforms. Senior officers unsurprisingly have always had a cushy time: the acronym RHIP (Rank has its Privileges) says it all. Apart from the enemy and rough weather, all they had to contend with was mutiny.